The wit of William Wilde


A selection of antique publications gives as good an account of the Irish landscape as any modern literary efforts, writes Eileen Battersby.

Heritage is culture and cultural concerns are as practical - looking as they do to the protection of a legacy for the future - as they are romantic. Ireland has had her share of thinkers committed to protecting her natural and built heritage, and few could claim a contribution as valuable as that of Sir William Wilde (1815-1876). In a nation of talkers and dreamers, he was a visionary who was most emphatically a doer.

Organised, methodical and productive, he was a surgeon and a man of science who could also look to the past as a way of enhancing the present. How would he have reacted to the overruling of the appeals lodged against the construction of a waste incinerator at Carranstown, just outside Drogheda? Of his many achievements as an antiquarian and the first to write about crannógs, are two vividly beautiful and informed narratives featuring two specific areas; one in the east, the other in the west; one centring on a river, the other a Western lake believed to contain as many as 365 islands, and possibly more.

The Beauties of the Boyne and its Tributary the Blackwater, first published in 1849, with an extended second edition the following year including "a full and succinct account of the battle fought at Oldbridge, in 1690, generally known as 'The Battle of the Boyne' " remains the classic text of that archaeological treasure trove. It is an important, scholarly volume replete with archaeology and history placed within the context of the geography of the Boyne's course through four counties and centuries of human settlement.

Some years later, Wilde, having built a house at Moytura, Cong, Co Mayo, above the great lake he had fished throughout his life, wrote a second book of travelogue, cum local history and archaeological record - Lough Corrib; Its Shores and Islands with Notices of Lough Mask. It was 1867, and by then he had become Sir William Wilde, husband of "Speranza", father of the then 13-year-old future playwright Oscar and author of the innovatively arranged, Catalogue of the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1872, four years before his death at the age of 61, the second edition of Lough Corrib appeared.

It is a wonderful book. Do not allow the lyric exuberance of the famous opening sentence mislead you: "Westward, ho! Let us rise with the sun, and be off to the land of the West - to the lakes and streams - the grassy glens and fern-clad gorges - the bluff hills and rugged mountains - now cloud-capped, then revealed in azure, or bronzed by evening's tints, as the light of day sinks into the bold swell of the Atlantic, and leaves his reflection in long level streaks of crimson, green and orange, among the greyish-purple robe of twilight, when the shadows of the headlands sink deep into the placid waters of the lake." This is a serious, well researched and cross-referenced piece of writing.

There has been a problem. Although Wilde's colourful Victorian studies have more then lasted the test of time they became out of print and have been difficult to acquire. Zealot and casual - though interested - reader alike have searched in vain, invariably all competing for the few, very expensive second-hand copies that occasionally surface during the sales of private libraries. An abridged edition of the Boyne and Blackwater, edited by Colm O'Lochlainn, was published in 1949, marking the centenary of the original publication. O'Lochlainn also reprinted an abbreviated edition of Lough Corrib. Yet his editions have also largely disappeared.

Into this publishing lacuna came Kevin Duffy, a native of Cong, who decided it was time to republish these works. Last Spring he reprinted the original 1867 version of Lough Corrib; Its Shores and Islands with Notices of Lough Mask complete with the wood engraving made from William Wakeman's original sketches. Duffy's decision to alter the original title by presenting the book as Wilde's Lough Corrib may offend purists. However O'Lochlainn adopted the same practice when re-issuing The Beauties of the Boyne as Wilde's Boyne and Blackwater. Quibbles aside, readers should be grateful to these publishers. Duffy, now retired from some 50 years of serving the public, has found a new career, publishing, and has also written his autobiography as a gesture towards telling the story of small town life in Ireland. He admits wanting to reprint Robert Lloyd Praeger's classic The Way That I Went - except he was beaten to it, fittingly, by Allen Figgis, the son of the original publisher. Figgis published a facsimile of the 1937 original in 1997 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the book's publication, which The Collins Press in Cork re-issued in paperback.

Undaunted, Duffy has now reprinted Wilde's Boyne book as The Boyne and the Blackwater, using a facsimile of the second edition compete with the additions on the Battle of the Boyne and material on the Co Louth monastic sites of Mellifont and Monasterboice.

"Among the many scenes of beauty and of interest with which this fair island abounds," begins Wilde, "we know of none which combines such variety of the former or so many objects of the latter as the 'Pleasant Boyne'. And although this river does not burst upon us amidst the wild and stern grandeur of the mountains, with dashing torrent o'erleaping in its rapid course all the barriers of nature, or making its echoes heard among the deep hollows of dark-wooded dells, but pursues the quiet, even tenor of its way, through a flat but rich and fertile country, winding by 'its own sweet will' through broad savannahs and by green inches, where the calm ripple of its placid waters not the song of the mavis; still it possesses charms and beauties, and that, too, without a rival in this or perhaps any other country."

Wilde's engagement with the landscape serves as a charming backdrop for his observations on archaeology, history and folklore. By following the river from Co Meath into Co Louth he sets the scene for his dramatic version of the Battle of the Boyne. Confident that his readers "are already acquainted with the train of events which led to the battle" and of the campaign, he announces "we shall here chiefly confine ourselves to a topographical description of the battle-field and a brief narrative of the fight". It is exciting stuff - all the way to his rather business-like remarks concerning Schomberg: ". . . it is probable some shots might have been unwittingly directed towards the Duke of Schomberg, who was killed by a ball which penetrated his throat, and he died soon after without being able to utter a word."

Central to the narrative is Wilde's account of his first visit to the great burial mound of Newgrange and his subsequent impressions. Just as it was Wilde who retrieved the memory of the 18th century antiquarian artist Gabriel Beranger for posterity, his own books offer a rich collection of sketches of churches and castles, round towers and mounds and other field monuments. Always there is the sense that Wilde the scholar and collector of information is also a witness. He undertook his own excursions into the field and here is the wealth of his reporting.

Ever the man of science, Wilde includes as many hard facts as he does personal observations, history, folklore and mythology. Early in his western book he states: "Lough Corrib covers a space of 44,000 acres, and its watershed in the counties of Mayo and Galway comprises an area of 780,000."

His appreciation of the beauty of history and also of the human aspect of lives lived shapes his approach. It is a multi-dimensional overview such as that later demonstrated by Praeger and Frank Mitchell that sets Wilde's perceptions on a higher level of sensibility and response. "Writers on domestic and defensive architecture, alluding to these castles, erected in Ireland between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, are too much in the habit of looking upon our castellated mansions as mere guardrooms for the security and defence of the soldiery by which they were garrisoned, without taking into consideration the artistic skill and taste with which many of them were adorned; nor remembering the ladies bright and accomplished, who 'walked in silk attire'; the bards and minstrels . . . the scholars learned, the clerics pious, as well as the valiant knights and nobles."

Such sensibilities encouraged Wilde, conscious of the often ugly buildings of his day, when referring to the many beautiful ancient ruined churches dominating the landscape, to venture: "And when, again, we see large sums of money expended on erecting ugly unarchitectural structures for religious worship, we cannot help asking ourselves why the clergy of Ireland, no matter what their special persuasion may be, have done nothing to re-edify or restore these monuments of the past."

His inclusion of the Franciscan church Ross-Errilly, a complex which even today remains remarkably well preserved, is motivated by the beauty of the site - despite its standing some three miles from Lough Corrib.

George Petrie and John O'Donovan are constant presences throughout the book which is structured as a journey along the shore and on to some of the many islands. Both of these books make the familiar welcome and excite the curiosity. No guide is more informed, no companion more enthusiastic than William Wilde who, after more than 150 years, can still lead us through the landscape.

The Boyne and the Blackwater and Wilde's Lough Corrib by Sir William Wilde are published by Kevin Duffy, Headford, Co Galway, at €30 each